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Texas | Columns | "They shoe horses, don't they?"

The Worst Book on Texas Ever Written by a Man

"His legs were a little bowed
from being in the saddle since boyhood."

by John Troesser

We found this book on the sale shelf at a library in a town that looks a lot like Smithville. It had been checked out a total of 14 times in 30 years. It was a signed first edition - and dedicated to the library. It once sold for $5.99 and the binding was sewn in signatures. The staff hated to discard the book, but the library business isn't always pretty. There's a dark side - a library "underbelly" that is seldom discussed.

We won't give the title because our purpose isn't to ridicule the book. Okay, maybe it is. Yes, it definitely is. We can't help ourselves. We still won't give you the title, though, because it gives away the entire plot in three words. Just think along the lines of "Johnny Yuma" and Texas. For younger readers who may not be familiar with Johnny Yuma (AKA Nick Adams) - please consult an older reader.

The author of this book was born in 1900 and the book was published in 1973. It explains a lot. Times were innocent back in the 70s. Variety shows were the backbone of popular television and if "reality TV" had been proposed, would be an unthinkable bad joke - like it (in reality) is.

Publishing in the early seventies was undergoing a change. The general attitude in America toward writing was that there were just too many authors. Reader's Digest was publishing them five to a book and even they couldn't keep up. Magazines had ads saying 12 books for $1 - so how important could books be to people in the real world? Also they had something called "jobs" back then, so book writing was more or less left to people who had the time and / or money to get their work published.

The book's flyleaf shows a hatless, pipe-smoking, plaid-jacketed gentleman with a full head of thick black hair, which, like the binding of his book, was stitched. His face can only be described as handsomely "weathered and craggy." He looks more like a sheriff than the doctor that he was in real life. His hobbies were listed as writing, photography and trailer-traveling.

History According to the Brothers Warner

It's easy to see by the writing that this hatless Texan, this sheriff-looking doctor was greatly influenced by Warner Brothers Studios - particularly in portraying his characters and their dialogue. Reading it was like watching a "lost" episode of Cheyenne, Maverick, Sugarfoot or Bronco, but without commercial interuption.

No cliché or generalization was left unwritten. You get your "itinerant Irish bartender" who first appears sobering up while chained to a blacksmith's anvil, "Hell-raisin' Jones," the blacksmith and owner of said anvil, plus sassy maidservants, gentle Jews, and an assortment of women who all have breasts described as "pointed." One gets the idea that if any of the females walked into a wooden door, they'd have to be pried loose.

The book has no forward, introduction, preface or notes. It starts out abruptly, or, to use that most overused phrase of the 1990s - "it hits the ground running." Ready?

"A tall, gaunt young man rode out of Macon on a lean gray horse." The time frame is immediately after the Civil War (about ten minutes after) and the destination of the gaunt young man is Texas (applause). We suspect the lean gray horse might be symbolic of the Lost Cause, but we aren't 100% sure.

"He sat slouched in the saddle with his blue eyes fixed on the muddy road." The book manages to maintain this feverish pace right up to the 162nd page where "they stood close with arms resting on the patio fence looking across the valley. They saw a white mare grazing [and] at her side was a little black foal with a white star on its forehead. Blanca looked at Jesse and her eyes were full of great joy. This was truly the land of the new beginning."

No, the book was actually intended for adults. Thanks for asking.

Sidekick Composites (or Compost)

One could argue that the book is slow-paced, considering that it takes the gaunt young man 99 pages of the 162 to cross the Sabine River and enter Texas (applause). But with such a rich assortment of cliches, the pages slowly grind by and before you realize it - you're there on the next page.

The characters are a composite of every sidekick ever seen on celluloid. Alan Hale, Chill Wills, Gabby Hays, Fuzzy Knight, Pat Brady and Andy Devine for the men - Hattie McDowell and Butterfly McQueen for the women. (Women didn't officially have sidekicks - they just had females who dispensed advice under their breath or whenever the heroine left the room).

Riverboats, String Tie Gamblers and Marked Cards

On his way to Texas (applause), the hero (who we suppose we should've introduced as Jesse) wins a riverboat (named the Dixie Belle) and believe it or not, its cargo at one point is actually molasses - perhaps symbolic of the book's plot.

Jesse, the gaunt and blue-eyed hero didn't just win the boat in a name-the-riverboat contest either; it was won the way the Warner Brothers would've wanted it won - by beating the boat's nefarious captain at poker using the captain's own (marked) deck of cards.

Wait, it gets better. Since the young blue, gaunt-eyed man is inexperienced at river navigation, a fact that he's man enough to admit, he offers the captain a deal to pilot the boat until he (the nefarious captain) can save up enough money to buy it back. All he has to do is mail payments to an Austin bank.

No, Jesse, the blue-gaunt, young-eyed hero is not stupid. He's the hero, he can't be. In New Orleans he looks up his deceased father's trusted former business partner to keep an eye on "Slade" and the Dixie Belle. This custodian's name was Zac Shipwright. With a name like that he could make a living overseeing riverboats whose captains were repaying owners who won the boats in poker games with the various captains' decks of marked cards. The only problem for Zac would be getting all of that on a business card. Leaving the boat in good hands, our gaunt-eyed, but blue hero continues on to Texas (applause).


When least expected, the author's medical knowledge surfaces: "Slade had the face of an owl and his eyes appeared every few moments to be veiled by a nicitating membrane." He also brings up that old medical standby - the injury that was voted "favorite injury" of the screen-writer's guild - the "subdural hematoma."

There are three women in the book. The first is the girl next door who grew up while the gaunt, blue-eyed man was away at war. The author's poetic description of her metamorphosis rivals the eloquence of a fifth grade science teacher when he says: "The plain little caterpillar had changed into a beautiful butterfly."

Less poetic are the phrases that the characters use: "The dirty, thievin' polecats!" and the inventive and unforgetable "you couldn't look worse if you'd been pulled through a knothole." Anger is unleashed with: "You dirty old coot, you've killed my brother" and biblical references like "Land o'Goshen!" abound.

Simile is demonstrated when Patrick O' Toole, (the itinerant-bartender-who-occasionally needs-to-be-chained-to-an-anvil) answers a poker player's question about whether or not a straight flush beats a full house: "It don't do nothing else," blurted Mike, his nose glowing like a red ember."

Bilingual readers will have no trouble when they encounter: "The vaqueros removed their sombreros and stood silent after making the sign of the cross." In fact, all minorities revel, marinate or wallow in their respective stereotypes.

"The Negroes on the dock were singing and dancing. The music was infectious (there's that medical training again) and many a foot was tapping."

"The blood of her Comanche mother had sustained her strength during the ordeal, but the warmth of her Spanish blood was grateful for the affection…"

And of course no book of the Old South would be complete without the colorful and pithy opinions of the heroine's maid (here named Missey). Missey opines with: "She done got de feber fo dat Colonel wid de mustache."

It's interesting to note that Missey suspends her dialect on the larger words and doesn't say kernel or mustash.

An Ichabod Crane-type minister with a large Adam's apple and a neck like "turkey skin" has the three-story name of Wesley Throckmorton Pettibone. WTP is always mentioned with all three names intact - and it sometimes appears three times in one short paragraph.

A Jew appears just long enough to be killed. Jesse laments the passing of the man with: "He was only a quiet, kindly little Jew, he said, "but he bleeds just like a gentile." Perhaps Jesse was thinking of the man when he's later offered a whiskey in a saloon and says: "I would prefer a nice glass of koshered [sic] wine."

Germans, too, make an appearance: "On deck Jesse stood watching the eager Germans loaded down with bundles." "'tis a grand sight to see their faces so full of hope." (The alert reader will immediately recognize the words of Patrick, the itinerant bartender since Irishmen always begin every declarative statement with "Tis." "They are a thrifty, hard-working lot," said Jesse, "They should do well in Texas." (applause)

A few phrases demand to be remembered - like the wonderful observation: "His legs were a little bowed from being in the saddle since boyhood." Asians, for some reason, seem to be the only minority group to be excluded.

One of the best lines in the book happens to be a typo. "On the heels [of the heroine's boots] were silver spurs with little Spanish towels." The proofreader evidently wasn't familiar with rowels. Who knows? Maybe they really were little Spanish towels - marked Hotel Iberia.

Finally, we have nothing else to say about the book (at last) except that a lot can be learned from the author's age and the period in which he was writing.

He wouldn't understand why anyone would be laughing at the book today. His attitude is charitable and kind toward all the characters and he mentions nothing but what he perceived to be their good points. Even if he had consulted with spoke-persons for the various groups in question, they would've probably agreed with him.

We're sure he was a much better physician and photographer than an author, especially when it came down to diagnosing subdural hematomas, nicitating membranes and pointed breasts.

© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?" September 14, 2003 Column

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